Super hot planet bigger than Jupiter might be disappearing

Terry Joseph
June 6, 2017

With a day-side temperature of 4,600 Kelvin (more than 7,800 degrees Fahrenheit), planet KELT-9b is hotter than most stars, and only 1,200 Kelvin (about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit) cooler than our own sun.

Researchers from Vanderbilt and Ohio State University found the planet using the Kilodegree Extremely Large Telescope (KELT), a low-priced observatory that scans large swathes of the sky, looking at bright objects to pick out the dips in brightness that indicate a planet could be passing between a star and Earth.

It "radiates so much ultraviolet radiation that it may completely evaporate the planet", Keivan Stassun, director of a study on KELT-9b published in Nature on Monday, told NASA.

The extreme ultraviolet radiation bombarding KELT-9b is causing its atmosphere to bleed into space, and it probably has a glowing gas tail reminiscent of a comet.

The super-heated planet has other unusual features as well.

Intense heat from its host star was causing the planet to lose its atmosphere at the rate of between 10 billion and 10 trillion grams per second.

"It's a planet by any of the typical definitions based on mass, but its atmosphere is nearly certainly unlike any other planet we've ever seen just because of the temperature of its day side", said Scott Gaudi, professor of astronomy at The Ohio State University and a leader of the study. The data from the hot exoplanet were so odd that there was a bet between Gaudi and another scientist, involving a bottle of single-malt scotch, whether KELT-9b was, in fact, a planet. It is so close to its star, it completes an orbit every day and a half. "The long-term prospects for life, or real estate for that matter, on KELT-9b are not looking good".

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"Finding a wider range of these planets, especially ones that are amenable to further study like this one, is really important to trying to understand these types of worlds", says Gaudi. Well, the surface of our sun is around 5,600 degrees C and Venus, the hottest planet in our solar system is about 500 degrees.

If any tardigrades or other extremophiles did ever make their way to this hellish place, they'd likely have to move on or stick to exploring the planet's dark side. "On the other hand, because KELT-9b's host star is bigger and hotter than the sun, it complements those efforts and provides a kind of touchstone for understanding how planetary systems form around hot, massive stars", Gaudi said.

Most exoplanet hunters are drawn to smaller, cooler stars, because that's where possibly habitable worlds could exist. No planets have ever been found around B-type stars, which are the hottest stars in the galaxy. Scott Guadi of Ohio State University said the daylight side would "appear slightly dimmer than the sun and slightly more orange than the Sun", and the night side would look "like a red dwarf to our eyes". The instruments, "Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescopes" or KELTs, fill a large gap in the available technologies for finding extrasolar planets. So whereas a traditional telescope costs millions of dollars to build, the hardware for KELT, of which there are two, runs for less than $75,000. Where other telescopes are created to look at very faint stars in small sections of the sky at very high resolution, KELTs look at millions of very bright stars at once, over broad sections of sky, at relatively low resolution.

Our Universe is filled with extremes that boggle the imagination, and each time we think we've discovered the limits of what nature can produce, we find something that takes it to another level.

Subsequent observations confirmed the signal to be due to a planet, and revealed it to be what astronomers call a "hot Jupiter"-the ideal kind of planet for the KELT telescopes to spot". They plan to observe Kelt-9b with more powerful telescopes, such as Hubble and the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope to gather more data to see how it behaves.

While NPR reported that the planet has a comet-like tail, astronomer Drake Deming, a University of Maryland astronomer unaffiliated with the discovery, told the Post that this was an unproven hypothesis.

Other reports by Free-Prsite

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